Like the blooming of the hydrangeas or the return of the red-bellied beer swiller to the sands of Wollaston Beach, spring wouldn’t be spring without some bizarre Red Sox drama. And, per usual, there’s been plenty. Consider catching prospect Jon Denney, who might make the lineup this year—a police lineup, that is. Denney kept the Sox’s spring training arrest streak alive by getting pulled over twice in the same night. The second encounter brought out the cuffs, at which point Denney informed the police how rich he is. Because cops love to hear that from a 19-year-old.
Moving on from Denney’s Moons Over My Hammy Jailhouse Breakfast, the Red Sox also had a swarm of bees delay a spring training game with the Yankees. New York first baseman Mark Teixeira
brought out two bottles of honey and suggested using it to lure the bees out to the parking lot. We strongly encourage all Red Sox fans to implement this information in a Teixeira chant, perhaps referencing Winnie the Pooh or Honey Boo Boo.
And don’t forget that Jake Peavy was injured when he slashed his finger with a giant knife while cutting the packaging on a pair of new fishing rods. Making matters worse, he then went fishing instead of to the doctor. As the saying goes: Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he’ll miss three days with a gnarly finger laceration.
So, an arrest, swarms of bees, a freak knife accident—it must be time for another Red Sox season! Let’s assess the good, the bad and the frankly unknowable by answering 10 important questions about the 2014 Boston Red Sox.
We won the World Series. Does that mean we’re the favorites?
Vegas doesn’t think so, with most bookies ranking the Sox’s chances behind those of the Dodgers, the Tigers, the Nationals and the Cardinals—and nearly even with the Yanks and the Rays. (The Yankees’ odds improved conspicuously when they signed Masahiro “Hopefully Not Dice-K Part II” Tanaka for $155 million.) This should come as good news for Boston fans, since an element of national skepticism seems essential to Red Sox fortunes. They may have clinched three titles in the past decade, but they still function better with an underdog mentality. And by the way, if you wagered a million dollars last spring on the 2013 Red Sox winning the World Series, you’d have won $35 million. Too bad you didn’t do that.
But why would anyone doubt our awesomeness?
Well, losing Jacoby Ellsbury might have something to do with it. Last December, I was walking through Kenmore Square when a Fox 25 cameraman stopped me on the sidewalk to ask what I thought about Ellsbury going to the Yankees. I said something about the precedent from 2012 to 2013—losing three big names and subsequently winning the World Series—and how history shows the Sox don’t need to get overly invested in a single player. And while I genuinely believe my own sound bite, it still hurts to lose Ellsbury. The upshot, I suppose, is that given his propensity for injury, the Sox are already accustomed to playing without him.
So who’s playing center?
The happy surprise in this dilemma is the unexpectedly wonderful play from Grady Sizemore, whom we expected to be about as relevant as Grady Little (or Tom Sizemore). But clearly, the center field duties will be handled exclusively by hot young star Jackie Bradley Jr. That is, unless Sizemore somehow locks it up and Bradley is sent to Pawtucket. Of course, the two of them could also platoon, with the Sox grooming Bradley while moderating Sizemore’s day-to-day workload. One of those options will almost definitely play out—of this we are certain. But the Sizemore situation just goes to show that taking a flier on an injury-prone old guy can work out really well. Which brings us to…
How about that John Lackey and the rest of the starting rotation?
Returning from Tommy John surgery is a fraught process—some guys regain their form, but many others never manage to revive their careers. John Lackey turned out to belong to the former group, as underscored by his masterful outdueling of Justin Verlander in the Sox’s crucial 1-0 win in Game 3 of the ALCS. Even finer for Lackey, some folks think the second year after the surgery can go even better than the first (this, apparently, is the word on the Tommy John street).
The rest of the news on the Red Sox rotation is that there isn’t much news. And that’s great. There have been years when the team might know the first two starters and everything else is up for grabs, which can lead to uneven performances—starters seem to thrive on routine. This year, the rotation looks like Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Lackey, Peavy and Felix Doubront. Given Ryan Dempster’s unexpected retirement, it’s possible that Chris Capuano could get in the mix for the five-spot, but for the most part there’s a dearth of controversy.
And for that, we can at least partially thank Dr. Frank Jobe, who brought Tommy John surgery to baseball and just died this spring. We hereby propose an Official Salute to Frank Jobe at Fenway. Capuano can celebrate it on consecutive days—he’s had Tommy John surgery twice.
Who’s behind the plate?
While the starters on the mound seem all but locked in, there might be a varied cast on the other side of those pitches, as there’s no shoo-in to preside over hallowed ground once owned by the A-Rod-smashing mitt of Jason Varitek. We’ve got A.J. Pierzynski, who fits nicely in the Varitek model of catchers who are not afraid to incorporate their fists and/or faces in on-field disputes. (During his time with the White Sox, the team created an All-Star promotion encouraging fans to “Punch A.J.”) There’s David Ross, Ryan Lavarnway, Christian Vazquez and Dan Butler. Who emerges as the most popular day-to-day option might depend more on rapport with pitchers and the nebulous concept of game management than on offensive stats. We’ll miss Salty, but backstop is one position where the Red Sox have a lot of good options.
Can Papi remain Papi?
To anyone who hates the concept of the designated hitter, we challenge you to look at David Ortiz and tell him he can’t play. Just look him right in the eye and tell him he has to either field a position or retire. You can’t do it, can you? Thanks to the DH, the Red Sox still have their 2004-era title talisman, their mascot, their fearsome power-hitting clubhouse glue. He may slump, for sure—he’s had a horrible spring training while angling for a contract extension he finally got—but given Ortiz’s track record, you know he’s always going to come back around. He’s still the guy other teams shudder to see striding to the plate in crucial situations, waggling his bat and taking those massive cuts that have a way of lasering the pitch back into the bullpen. You know the phrase “Act like you’ve been there”? Well, Papi’s been there, he acts like it and he’s a key reason the 2014 Red Sox have an excellent chance of playing baseball in October.
We have a closer! Right?
Well, probably. Last year Koji Uehara took over closing duties in June and subsequently emerged as the most lights-out finisher in the league. His WHIP stat (walks plus hits per inning pitched) was 0.57, which is the lowest in major league history. But closers are all about catching lightning in a bottle, and success one year is no guarantee of future performance. Fortunately, Uehara only had four months as the closer, so hopefully he can pick up where he left off. But if we get to August and Edward Mujica or Junichi Tazawa or Brandon Workman has emerged as the new go-to guy, don’t fret. As Uehara himself proves, sometimes the secret weapon is the best weapon of all.
Are we strong at shortstop?
It looks like Xander Bogaerts could mature into a fantastic shortstop, but he’s still green. While we certainly hope that Bogaerts develops into the Sox’s first long-term shortstop since Nomar, in the meantime there’s still the distraction of the unsigned Stephen Drew. Luckily, we have a solution: First we tell Drew that his agent Scott Boras requested a meeting, and then we trick him into walking into an “office” that is really a shipping container on a cargo vessel bound for Japan. To thicken the plot, Manny Ramirez will be in there waiting for a meeting too. After a week at sea, Manny will remark, “Man, Nomar, this is a strange cruise ship.” None of this will resolve the situation, but it will be a great way to take the heat off Bogaerts if he has an early slump.
Are the important beards back?
Winning a title is sweet enough, but the Red Sox get bonus points for doing it while rocking a look that George Steinbrenner would’ve hated. If nasty facial hair correlates to postseason success, then warm up the duck boats, because the Sox’s most hirsute bunch is back to win games, take names and make the Duck Dynasty guys look like Justin Bieber. Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia and Shane Victorino all return, providing a crucial thread of continuity with the championship crew. General manager Ben Cherington knows you can’t expect to bring back the exact team that won a title, but re-signing Napoli was a key move.
Is greatness the new normal?
We’d like to think so, but the post-2007 years spent wandering the wilderness prove how injuries and free-agent miscalculations can utterly torpedo a formerly competitive team. Freshly minted championship aside, it would be foolish to think that the Red Sox are suddenly immune to the forces that so very recently dropped them to last place. But the Cherington regime seems to embrace a certain philosophic adaptability that bodes well for long-term success—Cherington will blow up a team when necessary (see: Josh Beckett and friends), but he’ll also spend the money to keep the guys he deems crucial. He’s not playing Yankees-style acquisition by brute force, and he’s not exactly going the Moneyball route either. If anything, Cherington appears to embrace a Belichick-style gimlet eye toward his team’s needs and his available resources. That means practicing patience with younger players like Bogaerts and Bradley rather than gutting the farm system to grab the free agent du jour. And it means sometimes letting popular players like Ellsbury walk. It’s hard to know which signing—or lack of signing—will haunt you, but for 2014 Cherington basically adhered to the notion that you don’t mess with success. Was that the right call? Head on down to Yawkey Way, because we’re about to find out.